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Wednesday, January 21, 2015

 12:44 PM 

Congressional Republicans need to prove themselves, DC panelists say

Now that Republicans control Congress, they have to prove they can govern effectively, three Wisconsin politicos with deep D.C. experience agreed.

The message voters sent in November was that they "want doers," not necessarily Republicans, former longtime 3rd District Rep. Steve Gunderson told a WisPolitics audience in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 14. They need to look for areas of bipartisanship, such as energy policy, education and the economy, said the Republican who now leads the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities.

Former Governor and HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson agreed, saying: "We won" on Election Day but warned fellow Republicans that voters could prefer Democrats in 2016 if they don't quickly tally accomplishments. Republicans have to show that they can get things done, he said.

Nonetheless, both Thompson and Gunderson were fairly optimistic that the 114th Congress can pass meaningful legislation. Their optimism was not shared by former House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, a northern Democrat who represented the 7th District for 42 years.

Obey recalled a conversation he had with his Republican counterpart shortly after Democrats swept Congress and the White House in 2008. In trying to craft a stimulus package, then-ranking member Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., told Obey "sorry Dave, but orders from on high; we can't play," Obey said, which made him realize "no matter what we did, they were going to kick the hell out of us."

Many Tea Party members "asserted that they didn't come here to make government work, they came here to tie it in knots," Obey said.

Gunderson, Thompson and Obey also handicapped some of the major issues facing this Congress.

Thompson was bullish on the prospects of a major overhaul of the tax code, a top priority for House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Janesville. All three listed tax reform and trade as areas where lawmakers can make headway, if not agreeing on the reasons why. Immigration seems to be a more ticklish issue. Obey said the nation's "economic establishment," which compromises Republicans and Democrats alike, will make sure Congress addresses trade and the tax code.

Possibly up for consideration are two massive trade deals being negotiated with the European Union -- known as TTIP -- and 11 other, mostly Pacific, nations -- known as TPP. Before negotiators put the finishing touches on either of those deals, Congress is likely to consider Trade Promotion Authority, also known as fast-track authority.

Gunderson predicted progress on these issues but not as massive, catch-all legislation. He said that most likely each issue would be addressed by a series of smaller, easier to pass bills.

None guaranteed passage of major change to the immigration system but said that doing so is necessary for the Republican Party's continued success.

Thompson said his party is committed to winning back the White House next year and, therefore, congressional Republicans understand that tackling the subject is necessary to achieving that goal.

Obey said that is the big question: "Can the presidential wing of the Republican Party convince the legislative wing of the Republican Party that [it would be] committing political suicide" if it ignores comprehensive immigration reform?

Thompson and Gunderson said the Wisconsin delegation is uniquely positioned to heavily influence the major debates and final bills on key issues.

With Ryan leading arguably the most powerful House committee and Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Oshkosh, leading the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, "Wisconsin is in the catbird's seat," Thompson said.

"Ryan is in the driver's seat," Gunderson said, adding that as a moderate, Rep. Ron Kind, D-La Crosse, is positioned to be a key swing player.

As for the rest of the delegation, Rep. Sean Duffy, R-Weston, just assumed a subcommittee chairmanship on the powerful House Financial Services Committee, giving him new visibility, Gunderson said. And given their committee assignments, Reps. Mark Pocan, D-Madison, and Reid Ribble, R-Appleton, can be influential voices on education and transportation and infrastructure issues, respectively, he added.

Listen to audio from the event

-- By Nicole Duran. Duran is deputy managing editor for news for Foreign Policy magazine and has been a reporter for Congressional Quarterly, Roll Call and the congressional editor of National Journal.

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